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Title: Chaitanya and the Vaishnava Poets of Bengal

Author: John Beames

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Originally scanned at by John B. Hare.
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Originally scanned at by John B. Hare.
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FOLKLORE, &c., &c., &c.



VOL. II.--1873
[Bombay, Education Society's Press]
{Scanned and edited by Christopher M. Weimer, May 2002}




THE PADKALPATARU, or 'wish-granting tree of song,' may be considered as
the scriptures of the Vaish.nava sect in Bengal.  In form it is a
collection of songs written by various poets in various ages, so
arranged as to exhibit a complete series of poems on the topics and
tenets which constitute the religious views of the sect.  The book has
been put together in recent times, and takes the reader through the
preliminary consecration, invocations and introductory ceremonies, the
rise and progress of the mutual love of Radha and, and winds
up with the usual closing and valedictory hymns.

Before beginning an analysis of this collection so remarkable from many
points of view, it will probably be of some assistance even to those
who have studied the history of Vaish.navism, if I state briefly the
leading points in the life of Chaitanya, and the principal features of
the religion which he developed, rather than actually founded.

Bisambhar (Vishvambhara) Misr was the youngest son of Jagannath Misr, a
Brahman, native of the district of Sylhet in Eastern Bengal, who had
emigrated before the birth of his son to Nadiya (Nabadwipa), the
capital of Bengal.  [Footnote: The facts which here follow are taken
from the "Chaitanyacharitamrita," a metrical life of Chaitanya, the
greater part of which was probably written by a contemporary of the
teacher himself.  The style has unfortunately been much modernized, but
even so, the book is one of the oldest extant works in Bengali.  My
esteemed friend Babu Jagadishnath Ray has kindly gone through the book,
a task for which I had not leisure, and marked some of the salient
points for me.]  His mother was Sachi Debi, daughter of Nilambar
Chakravarti.  She bore to Jagannath eight daughters who all died young;
her first-born child, however, was a son named Biswarup, who afterwards
under the name of Nityanand became the chief disciple of his more
famous brother.  Bisambhar was born at Nadiya in the evening of the
_Purnima_ or day of the full moon of Phalgun 1407 Sakabda,
corresponding to the latter part of February or beginning of March A.D.
1486.  It is noted that there was an eclipse of the moon on that day.
By the aid of these indications those who care to do so can find out
the exact day.  [Footnote: There was an eclipse of the moon before
midnight Feb. 18, O.S. 1486.]  The passages in the original are:--

  Sri the Visible became incarnate in Nabadwip,
  For forty-eight years visibly he sported;
  The exact (date) of his birth (is) Saka 1407,
  In 1455 he returned to heaven.

And again--

  On the full moon of Phalgun at even was the lord's birth
  At that time by divine provision there was an eclipse of the moon.
    --_Ch._ I. xiii. 38.

In accordance with the usual Bengali superstition that if a man's real
name be known he may be bewitched or subject to the influence of the
evil eye, the real name given at birth is not made known at the time,
but another name is given by which the individual is usually called.
No one but the father and mother and priest know the real name.
Bisambhar's usual name in childhood was Nimai, and by this he was
generally known to his neighbours.

In person, if the description of him in the Chaitanyacharitamrita (Bk.
I. iii.) is to be considered as historical, he was handsome, tall (six
feet), with long arms, in colour a light brown, with expressive eyes, a
sonorous voice, and very sweet and winning manners.  He is frequently
called "Gaurang" or "Gaurchandra," _i.e._, the pale, or the pale
moon, in contrast to the Krishna of the Bhagvat who is represented as
very black.

The name Chaitanya literally means 'soul, intellect,' but in the
special and technical sense in which the teacher himself adopted it, it
appears to mean perceptible, or appreciable by the senses.  He took the
name Sri Chaitanya to intimate that he was himself an
incarnation of the god, in other words, made visible to the
senses of mankind.

The Charitamrita being composed by one of his disciples, is written
throughout on this supposition.  Chaitanya is always spoken of as an
incarnation of, and his brother Nityanand as a re-appearance
of Balaram.  In order to keep up the resemblance to, the
Charitamrita treats us to a long series of stories about Chaitanya's
childish sports among the young Hindu women of the village.  They are
not worth relating, and are probably purely fictitious; the Bengalis of
to-day must be very different from what their ancestors were, if such
pranks as are related in the Charitamrita were quietly permitted to go
on.  Chaitanya, however, seems to have been eccentric even as a youth;
wonderful stories are told of his powers of intellect and memory, how,
for instance, he defeated in argument the most learned Pandits.  A
great deal is said about his hallucinations and trances throughout his
life, and we may perhaps conclude that he was more or less insane at
all times, or rather he was one of those strange enthusiasts who wield
such deep and irresistible influence over the masses by virtue of that
very condition of mind which borders on madness.

When he was about eighteen his father died, and he soon afterwards
married Lachhmi Debi, daughter of Balabhadra Acharjya, and entered on
the career of a _grihastha_ or householder, taking in pupils whom
he instructed in ordinary secular learning.  He does not appear,
however, to have kept to this quiet life for long; he went off on a
wandering tour all over Eastern Bengal, begging and singing, and is
said to have collected a great deal of money and made a considerable
name for himself.  On his return he found his first wife had died in
his absence, and he married again one Bishnupriya, concerning whom
nothing further is said.  Soon after he went to Gaya to offer the usual
pi.n.da to the _manes_ of his ancestors.

It was on his return from Gaya, when he was about 23 years of age, that
he began seriously to start his new creed.  "It was now," writes Babu
Jagadishnath, "that he openly condemned the Hindu ritualistic system of
ceremonies as being a body without a soul, disowned the institution of
caste as being abhorrent to a loving god all whose creatures were one
in his eyes, preached the efficacy of adoration and love and extolled
the excellence and sanctity of _the_ name, and the uttering and
singing of _the_ name of god as infinitely superior to barren
system without faith."  Chaitanya, however, as the Babu points out, was
not the originator of this theory, but appears to have borrowed it from
his neighbour Adwaita Acharjya, whose custom it was, after performing
his daily ritual, to go to the banks of the Ganges and call aloud for
the coming of the god who should substitute love and faith for mere
rites and ceremonies.  This custom is still adhered to by Vaish.navas.
The Charitamrita veils the priority of Adwaita adroitly by stating that
it was he who by his austerities hastened the coming of in
the avatar of Chaitanya.

  I praise that revered teacher Adwaita of wonderful actions,
  By whose favour even the ignorant may perceive the (divinity)
    --Ch. I. vi.

Thus in Sanskrit verses at the head of that chapter which sings the
virtues of Adwaita: by in the Bengali portion of the same chapter it is
asserted that Adwaita was himself an incarnation of a part of the
divinity, e.g.--

  The teacher Adwaita is a special portion of god.

And the author goes on to say that Adwaita was first the teacher then
the pupil of Chaitanya.  The probability is that Adwaita, like the
majority of his countrymen, was more addicted to meditation than to
action.  The idea which in his mind gave rise to nothing more than
indefinite longings when transfused into the earnest fiery nature of
Chaitanya, expanded into a faith which moved and led captive the souls
of thousands.

His brother Nityanand was now assumed to be an incarnation of Balaram,
and took his place as second-in-command in consequence.  The practice
of meeting for worship and to celebrate "Sankirtans" was now
instituted; the meetings took place in the house of a disciple Sribas,
and were quite private.  The new religionists met with some opposition,
and a good deal of mockery.  One night on leaving their rendezvous,
they found on the door-step red flowers and goats' blood, emblems of
the worship of Durga, and abominations in the eyes of a Vaish.nava.
These were put there by a Brahman named Gopal.  Chaitanya cursed him
for his practical joke, and we are told that he became a leper in
consequence.  The opposition was to a great extent, however, provoked
by the Vaish.navas, who seem to have been very eccentric and
extravagant in their conduct.  Every thing that had done
Chaitanya must do too, thus we read of his dancing on the shoulders of
Murari Gupta, one of his adherents; and his followers, like himself,
had fits, foamed at the mouth, and went off into convulsions, much
after the fashion of some revivalists of modern times.  The young
students at the Sanskrit schools in Nadiya naturally found all this
very amusing, and cracked jokes to their hearts' content on the crazy

In January 1510, Chaitanya suddenly took it into his head to become a
Sanyasi or ascetic, and received initiation at the hands of Keshab
Bharati of Katwa.  Some say he did this to gain respect and credit as a
religious preacher, others say it was done in consequence of a curse
laid on him by a Brahman whom he had offended.  Be this as it may, his
craziness seems now to have reached its height.  He wandered off from
his home, in the first instance, to Puri to see the shrine of
Jagannath.  Thence for six years he roamed all over India preaching
Vaish.navism, and returned at last to Puri, where he passed the
remaining eighteen years of his life and where at length he died in the
48th year of his age in 1534 A.D.  His Bengali followers visited him
for four months in every year and some of them always kept watch over
him, for he was now quite mad.  He had starved and preached and sung
and raved himself quite out of his senses.  On one occasion he imagined
that a post in his veranda was Radha, and embraced it so hard as nearly
to smash his nose, and to cover himself with blood from scraping all
the skin off his forehead; on another he walked into the sea in a fit
of abstraction, and was fished up half dead in a net by a fisherman.
His friends took it in turns to watch by his side all night lest he
should do himself some injury.

The leading principle that underlies the whole of Chaitanya's system is
_Bhakti_ or devotion; and the principle is exemplified and
illustrated by the mutual loves of Radha and  In adopting
this illustration of his principle, Chaitanya followed the example of
the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavat, and he was probably also
influenced in the sensual tone he gave to the whole by the poems of
Jayadeva.  The Bhakta or devotee passes through five successive stages,
_Santa_ or resigned contemplation of the deity is the first, and
from it he passes into _Dasya_ or the practice of worship and
service, whence to _Sakhya_ or friendship, which warms into
_Batsalya_, filial affection, and lastly rises to _Madhurya_
or earnest, all-engrossing love.

Vaish.navism is singularly like Sufiism, the resemblance has often been
noticed, and need here only be briefly traced.  [Footnote: Conf. Capt.
J. W. Graham's paper 'On Sufiism,' _Bombay Literary Soc. Trans._
Vol. I. pp. 89 et seqq.; Rajendralala Mittra's valuable introduction to
the _Chaitanya Chandrodaya_ (Biblioth. Ind.), pp. ii-iv and xv;
also Jones' 'Mystical Poetry of the Persians and Hindus,' _Asiat.
Res._ Vol. III. pp. 165-207; and Leyden, 'On the Rosheniah Sect,
&c.,' _As. Res._ Vol. XI. pp. 363-428.--ED.]  With the latter the
first degree is _nasut_ or 'humanity' in which man is subject to
the law _shara_, the second _tarikat_, 'the way' of
spiritualism, the third _'aruf_ or 'knowledge,' and the fourth
_hakikat_ or 'the truth.' Some writers give a longer series of
grades, thus--_talab,_ 'seeking after god;' _'ishk_, 'love;'
_m'arifat_, 'insight;' _istighnah_, 'satisfaction;'
_tauhid_, 'unity;' _hairat_, 'ecstacy;' and lastly
_fana_, 'absorption.'  Dealing as it does with God and Man as two
factors of a problem, Vaish.navism necessarily ignores the distinctions
of caste, and Chaitanya was perfectly consistent in this respect,
admitting men of all castes, including Muhammadans, to his sect.  Since
his time, however, that strange love of caste-distinctions, which seems
so ineradicable from the soil of India, has begun again to creep into
Vaish.navism, and will probably end by establishing its power as firmly
in this sect as in any other.

Although the institution of love towards the divine nature, and the
doctrine that this love was reciprocated, were certainly a great
improvement on the morbid gloom of Siva-worship, the colourless
negativeness of Buddhism, and the childish intricacy of ceremonies
which formed the religion of the mass of ordinary Hindus, still we
cannot find much to admire in it.  There seems to be something almost
contradictory in representing the highest and purest emotions of the
mind by images drawn from the lowest and most animal passions.

  "Ut matrona meretrici dispar erit atque discolor."

So must also Vaish.navism differ from true religion, the flesh from the
spirit, the impure from the pure.  The singing of hymns about Radha and is much older than Chaitanya's age.  Not to mention Jayadeva
and his beautiful, though sensual, Gitagovinda.  [Footnote: It is many
years now since I read Gitagovinda as a text-book at college, but the
impression I still retain is that it was in many parts far too warm for
European tastes.]  Bidyapati, the earliest of Bengali poets, and
Cha.n.di Das both preceded Chaitanya, and he himself is stated to have
been fond of singing their verses.  There was therefore a considerable
mass of hymns ready to his hand, and his contemporaries and followers
added largely to the number; the poems of the _Padakalpataru_ in
consequence are of all ages from the fifteenth century downwards;
moreover, as Vaish.navism aspires to be a religion for the masses, the
aim of its supporters has always been to write in the vulgar tongue, a
fortunate circumstance which renders this vast body of literature
extremely valuable to the philologist, since it can be relied on as
representing the spoken language of its day more accurately than those
pretentious works whose authors despised everything but Sanskrit.

The _Padakalpataru_, to keep up the metaphor of its name
throughout, is divided into 4 _sakhas_ or 'branches,' and each of
these into 8 or 10 _pallabas_ or smaller branches, 'boughs.'  It
should be explained that the kirtans are celebrated with considerable
ceremony.  There is first a consecration both of the performers and
instruments with flowers, incense, and sweetmeats.  This is called the
_adhibas_.  The principal performer then sings one song after
another, the others playing the drum and cymbals in time, and joining
in the chorus; as the performance goes on many of them get excited and
wildly frantic, and roll about on the ground.  When the performance is
over the drum is respectfully sprinkled with _chandana_ or
sandalwood paste, and hung up.  Several performances go on for days
till a whole Sakha has been sung through, and I believe it is always
customary to go through at least one Pallab at a sitting, however long
it may be.  The Bengali Kirtan in fact resembles very much the Bhajans
and Kathas common in the Mara.tha country, and each poem in length, and
often in subject, is similar to the Abhangas of Tukaram and others in
that province.

The first Pallab contains 27 hymns, of these 8 are by Gobind Das, 8 by
Baishnab Das, 3 by Brindaban Das, the rest by minor masters.  Brindaban
Das and Parameshwar Das were contemporaries of Chaitanya, the others--
including Gobind Das, who is perhaps the most voluminous writer of all
--are subsequent to him.  Of the hymns themselves the first five are
invocations of Chaitanya and Nityanand, and one is in praise of the
ceremony of Kirtan.  There is nothing very remarkable in any of them.
Number 5 may be taken as a specimen, as it is perhaps the best of the

  "Nand's son, lover of the Gopis, lord of Radha, the playful Syam:

_Is_ he, Sachi's son, the Indra of Nadiya, the heart-charming
dwelling of gods and saints; victory to him who is love embodied to his
own beloved, hail! hail to him who is the joy of the existence of his
well-beloved! hail to the delight of the eyes of his comrades in Braj!
hail to the charm of the sight of the women of Nadiya! hail! hail to
Sridam, Sudam, Subal, and Arjun, [Footnote: Names of Chaitanya's
disciples.] bound by love to him whose form is as a new cloud! hail to
Ram and the rest, beautiful and dear companions! hail to the charmer,
the incomparable Gora (Chaitanya)! hail to the mighty younger brother
of Balaram! hail! hail to Nityanand (who is) joy (personified)! Hail to
him who destroys the fear of good men, the object of the hope of Gobind

I would call attention here, once for all, to what is one of the
principal charms of Vaish.nava hymns, the exquisitely musical rhythm
and cadence.  They seem made to be sung, and trip off the tongue with a
lilt and grace which are irresistible.

This hymn is interesting as shewing how completely Chaitanya is by his
followers invested with the attributes of, and identified with,; it has no other special merits; nor anything specially
interesting from a philological point of view as it is nearly all

The next six are in praise of the sect itself, of Adwaita, and the
principal disciples.  That on Adwaita by his contemporary Brindaban Das
gives a lively picture of the old Brahman, then follow seven in praise
of the Kirtanias or the old master-singers--Bidyapati, Jayadeva,
Cha.n.di Das; then four on and Radha, containing only a
succession of epithets linked together by jay! jay!

The twenty-third begins the adhibas or consecration, and is curious
less for its language than for the description it gives of the
ceremonies practised.  It is by the old masters Parameshwar and
Brindaban, with the concluding portion by a younger master Bansi.  The
poem is in four parts and takes the form of a story how Chaitanya held
his feast.  It runs thus:--

  23. Atha sankirtanasya adhibasa.

"One day coming and smiling, sitting in Adwaita's house, spake the son
of Sachi, having Nityanand with him and Adwaita, sitting in enjoyment,
he planned a great festivity.  Hearing this, smiling with joy, Sita
Thakurani coming spoke a sweet word: hearing that with joyful mind the
son of Sachi spoke somewhat in regard to arranging the festival.
'Listen, Thakurani Sita,[Footnote: Sita was the wife of Adwaita.] bring
the Baishnabs here; making pressing invitation to them: whoso can sing,
whoso can play, invite them separately, man by man.'  Thus Gora Rai
speaking gave orders for an assembly: ' Invite the Baishnabs!  Bring
out the cymbal and drum, set out full pots painted with aloes and
sandal-paste: plant plantains, hang on them garlands of flowers, for
the Kirtan place joyfully.  With garlands, sandal, and betelnut, ghee,
honey, and curds consecrate the drum at evening-tide.'  Hearing the
lord's word, in loving manner she made accordingly various offerings
with fragrant perfumes: all cried 'Hari, Hari!' thus they consecrate
the drum; Parameshwar Das floats in enjoyment."

Of the remainder of the adhibas I give merely a paraphrase ommiting the
numerous repetitions.

2. Having prepared the entertainment she invites them, "kindly visit
us, to you and Vaish.navas, this is my petition, come and see and
complete the feast;" thus entreating she brought the honoured guests,
they consecrate the feast.  Joyfully the Vaish.navas came to the feast:
"to-morrow will be the joy of the great festivity, there will be the
enjoyment of the singing Sri's sports, all will be filled
with delight."  The merits of the assembly of the devotees of Sri Chaitanya singeth Brindaban Das.

3. First set up the plantains, array the full pots, adorned with twigs
of the mango; the Brahman chants the Vedas, the women shout jay! jay!
and all cry Hari! Hari!  Making the consecration with curds and
_ghi_, all display their joy; bringing in the Vaish.navas, giving
them garlands and sandal-paste, for the celebration of the Kirtan; joy
is in the hearts of all, hither come the Vaish.navas, to-morrow will be
Chaitanya's kirtan; the virtue of Sri Chaitanya's name, and
the indwelling of Sri Nityanand singeth Das Brindaban.  [Footnote: The
poet's name is inverted to make a rhyme for Kirtan in the preceding

4. Jay! jay! in Nawadwip; by Gorang's order Adwaita goes to prepare the
consecration of the drum.  Bringing all the Vaish.navas with sound of
"Hari bol," he initiates the great feast.  He himself giving garlands
and sandal-paste, converses with his beloved Vaish.navas, Gobind taking
the drum plays ta-ta-tum tum, Adwaita lightly clashes the cymbals.
Hari Das begins the song, Sribas keeps time, Gorang dances at the
kirtan celebration.  On all sides the Vaish.navas crowding echo "Hari
bol," to-morrow will be the great feast.  To-day consecrate the drum
and hang it up, joyfully saith Bansi sound victory! victory!!

Having thus concluded the initiatory ceremonies in the lst Pallab, the
2nd Pallab begins the real "Kirtan."  It contains 26 hymns by masters
who are mostly of comparatively recent date.  Of the old masters Gobind
Das and Cha.n.di Das alone appear in this Pallab.  We now commence the
long and minutely described series of emotions and flirtations (if so
lowly a word may be used) between Radha and, and this Pallab
and in fact the whole of the first Sakha is on that phase called
"purbaraga" or first symptoms of love.  In No. 2, Cha.n.di Das
represents two of Radha's Sakhis, or girl-friends, whispering together
as they watch her from a distance (the punctuation {i.e. colon (:)}
refers to the caesura, not to the sense):

"She stands outside the house, a hundred times restlessly she comes and
goes: depressed in mind, _with_ frequent sighs, she looks towards
the kadamba jungle.  Why has Rai (Radhika) become thus? serious is her
error, she has no fear of men, where are her senses, or what god has
possessed her?  Constantly restless, she does not cover herself with
the corner of her robe: she sits still for a while, then rises with a
start, her ornaments fall with a clang.  Youthful in age, of royal
descent, and a chaste maiden to boot: what does she desire, (why) does
her longing increase?  I cannot understand her motives: from her
conduct, this I conceive, she has raised her hand to the moon:
[Footnote: She has formed some extravagant desire.]  Cha.n.di Das says
with respect she has fallen into the snare of the black one

This poem vividly expresses the first symptoms of love dawning in the
girl's heart, and from a religious point of view the first awakenings
of consciousness of divine love in the soul.  It is difficult for the
European mind, trained to draw a broad distinction between the love of
God and love for another human being, to enter into a state of feeling
in which the earthly and sensual is made a type of the heavenly and
spiritual, but a large-souled charity may be perhaps able to admit that
by this process, strange though it be to its own habits and
experiences, there may have been some improvement wrought in the inner
life of men brought up in other schools of thought; and my own
experience, now of fourteen years standing, enables me to say that
Vaish.navism does, in spite of, or perhaps in virtue of, its peculiar
_modus operandi_, work a change for the better on those who come
under its influence.

Two more hymns on the same subject follow, and in No. 5 Radha herself
breaks silence.

"In the kadamba grove what man is (that) standing?  What sort of word
coming is this: the plough of whose meaning has penetrated startlingly
the path of hearing?  With a hint of union, with its manner of
penetrating making one well-nigh mad:  My mind is agitated, it cannot
be still, streams flow from my eyes:  I know not what manner of man it
is who utters such words:  I see him not, my heart is perturbed, I
cannot stay in the house:  My soul rests not, it flutters to and fro in
hope of seeing him:  When she sees him, she will find her soul, quoth
Urdbab Das."

I have left myself no space to finish this Pallab, or to make remarks
on the peculiarities of the language, which in the older masters would
more properly be called old Maithila than Bengali.  It is nearly
identical with the language still spoken in Tirhut, the ancient
Mithili, and in Munger and Bhagalpur, the ancient Magadha, than modern
Bengali.  As the Aryan race grew and multiplied it naturally poured out
its surplus population in Bengal, and it is not only philologically
obvious that Bengali is nothing more than a further, and very modern
development of the extreme eastern dialect of Hindi.  All these
considerations, however, I hope still further to develop at some future

End of the Project Gutenberg EBook of Chaitanya and the Vaishnava Poets of
Bengal, by John Beames


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